Untangling slavery’s roots: the yearslong search for ‘Angela’

Why We Wrote This

The year 1619 is the time “freedom stumped its toe ... [at] Jamestown,” as Langston Hughes wrote. Archaeologists say they want to find Angela to reclaim her humanity for history.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Archaeologist Angie Towery-Tomasura holds what is likely a deer's jawbone from a dig through a 17th century household trash heap on April 25. Four hundred years after the first appearance of enslaved Africans in British North America, Ms. Towery-Tomasura is part of a team searching for evidence of Angela, an Angolan who was captured and brought to what would become Virginia.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

When an Angolan woman known as Angela was sold to Capt. Bill Pierce 400 years ago at Jamestown, it marked a seminal moment: the beginning of chattel slavery in the 13 colonies. It came just weeks after the first general assembly marked the first steps toward democracy.

“It was a symbolic year, to say the least,” says historian James Horn, author of “1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy.”

For two years, archaeologists have been searching for her remains in an effort to bring humanity to some of the first of 12.5 million Africans brought to the Americas to be enslaved. Before even arriving in Virginia, Angela survived war, capture, a forced march, and a harrowing trans-Atlantic voyage in which she and others were captured by pirates. After, she survived slavery, a Powhatan attack that killed hundreds of colonists, and famine. But there the record stops. If they can find her remains, archaeologists say, they can bring her life more vividly to the historical record: How old was she? Did she have children? How did she die?

For Angie Towery-Tomasura, one of the archaeologists, the search for Angela has become a personal mission.

“Her story is written in the dirt,” she says. “We are driven to find it. We want to give Angela a voice.”

Her name, as written down for the first time in a 17th-century muster, was Angelo.

She is now known to history as Angela, one of “20 ... odd” twice-captured Angolans who became the first enslaved people in British North America 400 years ago this summer.

Just behind the fallen Ambler Mansion here on Jamestown Island, a group of archaeologists with T-shirts rolled up to their shoulders are feathering away dust from what appears to be a trash heap – deer bones, broken wine bottles, jar shards. They are searching for evidence of the first African woman to be sold into slavery in the 13 British colonies.

Before arriving in what became Virginia, Angela, whose name also appears in the 1624 and 1625 censuses, survived war, capture, a forced march, and a harrowing trans-Atlantic voyage in which she and others were captured by pirates. After her arrival, she survived slavery, a Powhatan attack that killed hundreds of colonists, and famine. But there the record stops. If they can find her remains, archaeologists say, they can bring her life more vividly to the historical record: How old was she? Did she have children? How did she die?

Overlooking the pit, Jim Horn, the president of Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation and lead historian on the project, acknowledges that little may be found that can be tied directly to Angela. So far, a few beads potentially of African origins have been found.

She is here, somewhere.

Her arrival marked a seminal American moment: the simultaneous beginnings of democracy and chattel slavery in the New World.

“It was a symbolic year, to say the least,” says Mr. Horn, author of “1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy.”

The two-year-long search for Angela on one of America’s oldest historic grounds is intended not just to challenge Eurocentric founding myths, but to bring humanity to the first of the ultimately 12.5 million Africans who were brought to the Americas by 1867.

The digging is also part of a broader reexamination across the United States of a potent mixture of liberty and prejudice, established stateside at Jamestown, that remains a stubborn fixture of American life.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Archaeologist Angie Towery-Tomasura holds a shard of English pottery found at the site of the Pierce House on Jamestowne's once-tony Backstreete on April 25. An enslaved African in the household, known only as Angela, is the subject of a two-year dig to give new detail and humanity to what has historically been a homogenized view of Africans in the colonies.

“Through 400 years the questions of slavery and then of race [have] flowed from [Angela’s arrival],” says David Blight, author of this year’s Pulitzer-Prize winning “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” Just as important, he adds, is the story of the first black people in Jamestown, “these Africans who with time and generations, through slavery and all kinds of migrations, the Americanization process, the Christianization process, and then on into freedom – that’s where their lives here started.

“It was a harbinger of things to come, yet nothing was perfectly inevitable,” says Professor Blight, a historian at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

To be sure, the import of Jamestown on the American experiment is significant, but sometimes overstated.

Trans-Atlantic slavery had been going on for more than 150 years by the time Angela disembarked at Point Comfort, or present-day Hampton, Virginia. And according to Roman Catholic Church records, a black child was born in Spanish St. Augustine, Florida, 13 years before Angela arrived.

“In some ways drilling down too deeply just into 1619 underestimates the transnational horror of what was going on for much longer through the broader Atlantic world,” says Michael Guasco, author of “Slaves and Englishmen.”

“But if we tell the story of 1619 the right way, it’s a way of remembering that the United States at its origins in the early Colonial period is as much African as it is European,” says Professor Guasco, a historian at North Carolina's Davidson College. “[That means] we can look at Jamestown as a starting point – and in some ways not simplifying, but complicating things from that point.”

On Jamestown Island, ospreys screech for attention while oaks whisper in the breeze. A statue of John Smith stands next to the spot where John Rolfe is said to have married Pocahontas. The graves of settlers are marked with thin crosses. The remains of a Civil War fort overlook the James River.

In the public discourse, Jamestown is often framed as a disastrous outing, as opposed to Plymouth, which largely owns America’s origin story. (Next year, the 400th anniversary of Thanksgiving will shift the focus to the Bay State.)

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Historic Jamestowne public historian Mark Summers sits at the exact spot where the Virginia colony’s first general assembly was held in 1619. It represented the first stirrings of representative democracy in the country that would become the United States.

Yet what happened at Jamestown, historians say, cuts close to what America eventually became. The idea, according to instructions from the Virginia Company of London for a first general assembly, was to improve the human condition through locally crafted laws that provided “for happy guiding and governing of the people.” But the company and its colonists had another clear motive (aside from survival): to make profits for shareholders.

“Historians know that when you look at the origins of how something is formed, you don’t go too far from its foundation,” says Cassandra Newby-Alexander, author of “Black America Series: Portsmouth, Virginia.” “We’re in this circle ... where we keep looping back to inequality, keep looping back to racism, keep looping back to unfair treatment, and it’s because we are not looking clearly and honestly at our origins and how those foundations were laid. Four hundred years later, people are realizing it is time to start a new arc.”

Not far from the Angela site archaeologists have uncovered the original Jamestowne Fort and its church, including a choir pew located at “the exact spot where representative government begins only a few weeks before the Africans arrive,” says Historic Jamestowne historian Mark Summers before taking a seat in a newly installed pew.

When Angela arrived, she was purchased by Capt. Bill Pierce. She likely served as a house servant. It is not known whether she married or bore children, although her remains might hold clues to the latter.

What is clear is that the Angolans came as prisoners, not immigrants. In the ensuing years there was little talk about rights for the enslaved. Instead, according to Mr. Horn, the policing of Africans occupied lawmakers.

The year 1619 is the time “freedom stumped its toe ... [at] Jamestown,” as Langston Hughes writes in the poem “American Heartbreak.”

Four hundred years later, on average, black families have only a tenth of the net worth of white families ($17,000 versus $170,000). Disparities in education funding, property wealth, and health outcomes mean that white wealth is growing three times faster than black wealth.

As historians delve deeper into the lives of the first African Americans, “we should not hesitate but to also consider what happens with black family life 400 years later,” says Norfolk State historiographer Colita Fairfax, co-chair of the 1619 Commemorative Commission in Hampton, Virginia. “Why do we see similar and often identical economic situations for black people 400 years later?”

At the same time, historians like Mr. Summers say they are seeing growing interest in understanding the full nature of America’s origins.

In bids to take historical propaganda out of the public sphere, controversial Civil War statues are falling and Confederate flags are being put into museums. Institutions like Georgetown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and others are acknowledging the role of slavery and racism in their foundations amid questions of why black people on campus are still more likely to be janitors instead of students. The policing of black men especially remains at the forefront of debate over the role of prejudice in policy.

For Angie Towery-Tomasura, one of the archaeologists, the search for Angela has become a personal mission.

“Her story is written in the dirt,” she says. “We are driven to find it. We want to give Angela a voice.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.